When you hear the phrase ‘renewable energy’, what technologies come to mind? Wind and solar power, certainly; perhaps hydro and tidal energy, too.
Often excluded from the energy conversation in the UK, however, is another source of cheap, abundant and renewable power: waste. The reason it’s not foremost in our thoughts is simple: society’s attitude towards waste has long been ‘out of sight, out of mind’. But it’s time we paid closer attention to the power potential of trash.
In many northern European countries waste-to-energy plants are ubiquitous: Sweden, for example, burns 50% of its waste and landfills just 1%. But in the UK, public perception has played a major role in preventing refuse-derived fuel (RDF) and its more rigorously processed cousin, solid-recovered fuel (SRF), from taking off.
“In the UK, we consider waste-to-energy plants to be bad neighbours”, says Linda Ovens, Associate Director at AMEC, an engineering consultancy and project management specialist. “We have a history, way back, of city smog - thick dark skies from soot emitting industrial chimneys.”
Today, waste-to-energy plants operate under strict environmental regulations, meaning they produce cleaner emissions than many everyday activities. Yet anachronistic concerns about the health implications of harvesting waste have helped prevent the UK from capitalising on its potential benefits, says Ovens. While the UK and Ireland generate over 26 million tonnes of municipal solid waste each year after efforts to recycle have been exhausted, they currently have the capacity to burn just 28% of it – barely half what countries like Sweden and the Netherlands manage.
New plants are under construction, but the UK and Ireland will remain more than five million tonnes under capacity once all planned facilities are built.
This outcome wasn’t quite what the UK Government had in mind in 1996, when it implemented an escalating tax on waste to landfill. By making landfill waste disposal more expensive, it hoped to encourage councils and companies to develop alternative recycling infrastructure. But while the tax, which reached £72 per tonne in 2013, has indeed discouraged businesses from dumping their refuse, the UK shortfall in domestic waste-to-energy plants means companies are shipping their waste overseas to countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, which have more waste-burning capacity than material to feed their power plants.
From an energy security standpoint, says Ovens, this arrangement makes little sense. “Why are we shipping materials for other countries to produce energy when we could be producing energy ourselves?” she asks.
The finances of waste export are equally dubious at £50 per tonne, gate fees – the charges levied by facilities receiving the waste – cost the UK and Irish economies over £40 million in 2012. And by shipping waste abroad rather than burning it at home, the UK and Ireland also incurs an unnecessary £34 million per year purchasing coal.
In addition to negative public perception, waste-to- energy plants have to overcome their own financial challenges. Ovens acknowledges that frequently changing government policies on waste and energy have contributed to investors viewing these plants as ‘high’ risk. But greater support, brought about by acknowledging the role waste can play as an alternative energy source in the longer term, could provide a degree of certainty.
And while some environmentalists fear that waste-burning plants devour recyclable materials, Ovens points out that only materials that would otherwise end up in landfills get incinerated.
“There’s a perception that once you build a waste-to-energy facility, you have to keep ‘feeding the beast’”, she says. “But in actuality, waste prevention, reuse, and recycling can still be prevalent.” Germany and the Netherlands, for example, have some of Europe’s highest recycling rates and highest waste-to-energy capacities.
Ultimately, says Ovens, the UK and Ireland stand before two potential paths. One leads to the continued export of a valuable fuel source, consequent economic losses and a continued reliance on fossil fuels. The other leads to a scenario in which we accept waste as an alternative to coal, and governments provide financial support. “If we had adequate and affordable domestic facilities,” says Ovens, “we’d absolutely choose to use the ones in the UK.” – Ben Goldfarb
Amec is a Forum for the Future partner.
Photo credit: Flickr Lars Plougmann